Jon Abbott, Director of Global Clients, Cardinus Risk Management explains why we should look at the experiences of European and US organisations to drive the very best outcomes for office ergonomics management.

It’s becoming a bit of a cliché however around the world the workplace is evolving. Our devices are changing at breakneck speed, our workplaces and our habits too. Just a few years ago homeworking was a concern however, when we consider the current agile approach to working, the management of homeworkers was pretty straightforward.

We are even seeing a demographic shift amongst our workers. Millennials and Generation Z are developing behaviours around technology use whilst still at school – these habits will be hard to break. In fact, Generation Alpha will never know a time when social media did not exist.

These threats must be met, and across the world there are different approaches for tackling them.

Keep reading as we focus on Europe and the United States, which have two different drivers for implementing ergonomics programs. I hope to explain how organisations can learn lessons from both approaches.

The European Way

For many years Europe has been concerned with ergonomics risk. An EU Directive 89/391, the OSH ‘Framework Directive” requires each member country to manage ergonomics risk through regulation. The UK developed the Display Screen Equipment (DSE) Regulations 1992 (amended 2002) and employers have been bound by these regulations for the past 25 years.

The DSE regulations are very prescriptive. They require an employer to educate employees in the correct setup and interaction with their devices and environment. A self-assessment enables employers to identify workers who are experiencing discomfort or are otherwise at risk of harm.

I believe this is a tricky approach as the regulations may be interpreted literally.

The training guidance explicitly shows how an employee adjusts their chair, monitor and other devices. For those people who work in collaborative, Space As A Service and other dynamic environments, this training content may not be appropriate. Many city-dwellers often do not have the space or the desire, for an office desk and chair. Many will work from their dining table, kitchen counter or couch – many will work like this and be comfortable, others will not.

My fear is that too many employers take their training requirements literally and forget that the prescriptive guidance of national regulations is reinforced by their general duty of care, which requires an adaptive approach to training that responds to the individual’s requirements and environment. I have often heard customers say “but that doesn’t follow the regulations”. There is little point in training an individual on how to use a chair with five casters if they never use one.

I wholeheartedly agree with regulation, which drives better outcomes, raises awareness and helps organisations improve the health and welfare of their workers by providing a framework. This framework is perfect for organisations that do not have the in-house skills.

But, as I mentioned previously, regulation can also act as a restraining factor. By following the letter of the regulation, organisations may inadvertently restrict the benefits they could achieve.

A U.S. Perspective

The U.S. situation is somewhat different. The lack of a social healthcare makes ergonomics injuries expensive for an employer. Workers’ compensation insurance and healthcare are the main cost bearers of injury as a worker files a claim against their employer.

Money talks and, in my opinion, the U.S. has a better motivator for improving employee comfort. Regulation can often be toothless, money and profits never are. Speedy diagnosis of harm and an effective remediation plan can often prevent discomfort from developing into an injury that is more expensive to manage in terms of worker productivity, healthcare and other indirect costs.

And for this reason I tend to see our U.S. customers being much more focused on outcomes. More energy is invested in encouraging long-term worker behavior change and supporting them to understand and manage their own risk factors. The downside is U.S. programs tend to be reactive rather than proactive.

Reactive programs increase employer cost

A reactive program (often paper-based) means an employee will typically seek out assistance when their discomfort has reached an advanced stage. A worker will have little awareness of their condition and will not have been able to take steps to reduce their discomfort at an earlier stage.

In this instance I would assert that 80% of the burden of dealing with the issue is with the employer in a reactive ergonomics program. The cost of intervention, remediation and ongoing management is borne by the employer. The worker carries just 20% of the burden. Their input is to simply follow advice and guidance once the issue has been reported to the employer.

Aim for a proactive program

A proactive program (often regulated) transforms this process. By increasing awareness, workers can identify discomfort at an earlier stage and modify their behaviors or environment to improve their comfort.

I believe 80% of the burden is now with the worker. With better knowledge they are able to take measures to improve their wellbeing and take ownership of any discomfort they may be experiencing. The majority of issues can be successfully managed by the workers. The employer now carries just 20% of the burden of dealing with the issue. The employer is able to identify and provide intervention to those workers who genuinely need support.

As flexible working ergonomics programs evolve, I believe there is a significant opportunity to take the best of European and US experiences. A proactive program will always enable an employer to get ahead of any issues. Early identification and diagnosis is much more cost effective. By focusing on the tasks undertaken by each worker and delivering a targeted meaningful ergonomics strategy (similar to the US) we empower workers to self-manage into the future.

Create a proactive ergonomics program

Cardinus is a global leader in the development and implementation of proactive ergonomics programs. Most organisations utilise our award-winning office ergonomics program, Healthy Working. It’s the world’s most widely used online office ergonomics program and our customers include Fortune 500, government departments and other global organizations.

We offer customers the opportunity to free trial Healthy Working with up to 5% of your workforce. This ensures it’s the right solution for their organization and provides initial MSD risk data for their workforce.

If you would like to discuss your ergonomics program or would like pointers to improve your ergonomics provision please contact us.

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